Is There Such a Thing as a Stupid Question?

Mr. Mabry’s

Is There Such a Thing as a Stupid Question?

Recently, my seven-year-old granddaughter told me about an exciting day they had at her school. John Mabry, former St. Louis Cardinals player and current batting coach for the team, paid a visit to Julie’s second-grade class.

I asked Julie what Mr. Mabry’s speech had been about, but she informed me he didn’t deliver a prepared speech. Rather, he answered the kids’ questions. I asked what she had asked. “Well, I asked Mr. Mabry what his favorite color is, but some kids asked really stupid questions.” 

Obviously, Julie has clear ideas about what does and does not constitute a stupid question, and if you ever find yourself in the company of someone who has spent decades in professional baseball, the pivotal question should address his color preferences. I see stupid questions through a different lens, however.

When I help those in the C-suite make pivotal decisions, we frequently discuss the role they should play in developing bench strength. Their tendency, almost to a person, is to jump in and fix things for those asking questions, stupid and otherwise. Jumping in saves time, but it also develops dependency. If you make other people’s decisions for them, why should they take on the responsibility for outcomes? And how will they ever gain the experience of dealing with consequences?

When I mentor other consultants, I encourage them to tell me what they plan to do and then to ask for my feedback. In the short run, this approach takes longer than answering their questions directly, but in the long run, it helps them develop independence.

When I coach executives, I urge them to require that their direct reports present problems in once sentence and then to ask at least two open-ended “How?” “What?” questions: “How will we protect profit margins with this bid?” “What is the competition likely to do?”

 If the boss consistently refuses to give the answer, direct reports hone they problem-solving and decision-making skills. Or, the boss learns quickly that, in fact, the person is stupid.

On the subject of stupid answers, satirist P. J. O’Rourke had this to say, “To mistrust science and deny the validity of scientific method is to resign your job as a human. You'd better go look for work as a plant or wild animal.”

I agree with O’Rourke. Our jobs as humans, and especially as leaders of other humans, is to embrace fact finding and experimentation. We can’t allow ourselves to ask stupid questions or to let others distract us with theirs.